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Ray Velez Global Chief Technology Officer Twitter
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Rafi Jacoby Social Technology Lead Twitter
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How the Social Cloud Can Accelerate Brand Interaction

From March 2010 to March 2011, Facebook online video and mobile device consumption time were all up, but the rest of the Web was down. This means that while these social areas have grown, they’ve also taken users away from more established sites. Brands need to take the conversation to where the users already are. Social cloud services connect digital experiences with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft and other social services. We’ve identified some dos and don’ts to take full advantage of these APIs.

The Web isn’t dead, but it sure has taken a hit. Wired Editor Chris Anderson’s prediction that the free, interconnected world of the Web would be replaced by the paid-for, walled gardens that are apps hasn’t necessarily come true. Yet the Web is a changing place with fewer winners and more losers because of audience consolidation around a few key platforms. From March 2010 to March 2011, Facebook use was up 69 percent, online video consumption was up 45 percent and mobile device time was up 28 percent.[1] The rest of the Web was down 9 percent. This means that while these areas have grown, they’ve also taken users away from more established sites.

With social and video sites, the users are already there — you don’t need to drive them to your destination site. Instead, you can take the conversation to where the users are already. For instance, Facebook makes up 25 percent of all page views, with users averaging 15.5 hours per month on the site. This requires a rethink on how you spend your media dollars to acquire users.

In order to acquire information about those users, all you need to do is offer something small: a fun experience, a chance to win something or a coupon (which do amazingly well).

When you have reached the right audience, the users you have acquired will continue spreading the message for you. According to “Zuckerberg’s Law,” users share twice as much content every year as the previous year. Your brand’s content will be disseminated by real people to the people who trust them (high “earned” value). In the future, the brand with the most compelling content wins. Arguably this is already happening, but we need to develop new metrics to understand this. What is clear is that users want to share creative, fun and engaging content — not product specs or regular marketing collateral.

Soon, more experiences will be connected: tweeting from inside an Xbox game that they have unlocked a new level; sharing the act of viewing a TV show on Twitter/Facebook/GetGlue; leading other users on an augmented reality treasure hunt on their phones while tracking the progress inside a Facebook leaderboard and tweeting out results.

With the rise of social check-in services (Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook), you can have trackable digital marketing tying into brick and mortar. Then, you can build an experience around that location with communities, discussions, deals and events. You can learn exactly how far users will go to make a purchase, which users are more likely to purchase where, and what other locations they frequent that might be interesting for your business — all without commissioning surveys or having to integrate with many different point-of-sale systems. Social cloud services provide your digital experiences or Web properties with the ability to connect up with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft and other social services. These services come in the form of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that your technologist can integrate. Whether your digital experience is a mobile application or a traditional desktop site, these APIs are available.

Marketing and business needs a blueprint for how these all interact. The graphic below describes the key API categories in the social space.

Three core areas make up social APIs

1. Authentication

The first core API area is authentication or the ability to leverage the services of a social network to help people gain access to your digital property. You can now enable users to log in to your Web properties without having to create a new account. Registration through a social cloud service breaks down the barrier to entry of creating an account. OAuth and OpenID are the main technology standards for ensuring secure access to digital sites and properties. Sites can support both or just one, but ultimately these technologies can have a drastic impact on the number of folks who sign up. Once authenticated, there is the concept of profile data sharing or the sharing of data elements about people — pictures, birthdate, email, etc.

Obviously, there are privacy considerations that have slowly evolved. For example, when we first used Facebook Connect profile sharing, anyone could grab a person’s picture, but then Facebook evolved their privacy controls to give users control of who can see their picture. Of course there are limitations on what you can do with the identification, but at that point you can grab more information from the person contextually to your experience as needed. Lastly, it’s important to make sure you use whatever the connection type is, whether OAuth, OpenID or proprietary with secure sockets layer. This will ensure the hacker hanging at Starbucks doesn’t steal your password. After logging in, you can leverage locally saved tokens so users don’t have to login to Facebook across every site they go to during the day. One login will work. Letting users pick their account type to log into (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) affords the most flexibility, and you can leverage a lot of the same development when you code to a standard like OAuth.

2. Conversation and sharing

The second core API area is commenting and message boards — basically the ability to create messages around a topic area. Let users drive conversations like comments or message boards without having to write custom code to support it. Consider a Twitter message a conversation around a topic area, or a Facebook wall post a growing interaction for your experience. A lot of the API needs in this area are bringing order to the chaos. The Facebook plugins are pretty easily implemented and high value. Replace your own comment boards with Facebook comments — no additional sign-up required, and content can be shared on a user’s wall. It’ll drive traffic in and out of your Web property. Technologies available in the Software as a Service (SaaS) approach such as DISQUS or Echo enable you to bring the messaging to your site, while still existing on Twitter and Facebook. Considerations down the line include the ability to moderate and monitor posts, which are especially important when considering branded experiences.

3. Social graph

Lastly, one of the most important social API areas is sharing of the social graph. That means not only connecting with the current person, but with their friends as well. All of this is made available through the API. Similar to OAuth and OpenID, there is a technology standard for accessing this information called OpenSocial. While this has evolved considerably over the last couple of years, it still seems to lack broad adoption by the major players, most notably, Facebook. For now it seems proprietary API calls to social engines are still the norm.

Authentication, commenting and social graph sharing are the three key social services, but there are lots of other social services that can also power your digital experiences, whether mobile, desktop or in-retail. These will continue to grow as people innovate in the space. Social video services like Vimeo and YouTube allow you to embed your videos in your own digital experiences while still allowing the video content to be accessible from the YouTube and Vimeo platforms. The obvious benefit is that you save on bandwidth costs, but the even greater benefit is that you are where users are. You create a branded experience on YouTube, and then extend that experience through YouTube embed codes onto your branded property. YouTube continues to grow their API to allow more flexibility around how your player looks and whether or not ads should show up on your videos.

Simple plugin buttons such as Facebook’s “Like” and “Share,” Google’s “+1,” and Twitter’s “Tweet” and “Follow” dramatically lower the barrier to users sharing content from your site out to their entire social graph.

Data resources

If social cloud services accelerate traffic to your branded digital experience, core cloud infrastructure services will enable your social cloud services. Infrastructure as a service or rent-as-you-go Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or Platform as a Service (PaaS) let businesses like Zynga, Groupon, LivingSocial and Airbnb go from nothing to $1 billion valuations with negligible IT overhead, scaling when they need it, without overbuying capacity. But make sure you architect for fault tolerance (see AWS failure this spring). PaaS leaders make deployment, database and background jobs easy: consider Heroku, AppFog, Engine Yard, VMware and Cloud Foundry.

We can learn from the technologies, processes and concepts that have enabled huge social cloud growth for those companies. They are using PHP (Facebook), Ruby on Rails (Twitter, Groupon, Airbnb), Python (Yelp), MySQL, unobtrusive JavaScript, server-side JavaScript, cloud hosting, Scala, Clojure, MongoDB, CSS3, HTML5, REST, JSON and WebSockets. These technologies are being used by cutting-edge companies and they are contributing their cutting-edge work back to the community. Plus they are generally much more cost-effective than traditional enterprise-based approaches, stuck within slow-moving, expensive corporate IT data centers. Agile approaches have pushed innovative approaches like continual builds of code or continual releases of production code. Both approaches are made practical through platform cloud services.

Cloud-based performance monitoring tools like New Relic can identify performance problems in your application and give you starting points for optimization. LinkedIn uses this kind of information to identify functionality that can be replaced with higher performance languages and frameworks, migrating key services over to Node.js and Scala to take advantage of their high degree of parallelization. If you need deeply integrated analytics, a service like Mixpanel solves storage, presentation, organization, querying and export problems, and provides simple toolkits for instrumenting both the server and client components of your Web app.

Build with multiple screens in mind. A single codebase can easily support Web, Facebook canvas and mobile touch if you abstract out your views well and use a framework that is designed for such flexibility. Why not launch on three surfaces simultaneously for almost the same price in development? There’s no need to think of your site and your Facebook presence as completely different animals. They can be two views of the same thing, with slight differences. Platform cloud services can help you optimize and speed delivery, regardless of the screen. Look at cloud-based caching delivery networks like Amazon’s CloudFront or Google’s Page Speed to accelerate delivery, regardless of targeting a Facebook page or a traditional Web page.

Cloud services like Mashery or Apigee enable your brand to get into more places than just your owned digital properties. Razorfish’s Open Digital Services approach helps clients’ strategic view of services. Think about freeing some of your data (product catalog, etc.) with a public API and see what the community might build around/for you.

Cautions

There are many useful services available to build your applications. Yahoo! Query Language (YQL) lets you query a myriad of pieces of information against many of the Yahoo! properties. Geocoding services identify user locations and help you provide locally interesting content. It is important to understand how dependent your application is on these services and what their limitations are. Most will have limits on the number of API calls you can make; it’s advisable to build a layer into your own application to cache whatever you can to avoid hitting those caps. A local cache will also keep your application running and useable if the services experience an interruption. Lastly, ensure that you are subscribed and follow any announcements around APIs; they have change deadlines and if you don’t update in time you can be out of service.

If you build something that depends on the major social networks, your app will require occasional work in order to keep in sync with the latest changes, as well as monitoring to make sure that things outside of your app are live and working. During one campaign on Twitter, the tweets were not all appearing in the search feed and Twitter had to help fix an issue on their side. Facebook has had several major changes on their API, with the latest coming Fall 2011 — a security overhaul of the application authentication system that will disable applications that do not comply. In the past, Facebook switched from its proprietary Facebook Markup Language (FBML) to IFrames, but if you had an app that hadn’t launched yet, you had to make sure to pre-provision it on Facebook or you wouldn’t be grandfathered in and would have to scramble to do a rewrite.

Social conversations are hard to control. You may want to take a fresh look at how you relate with your consumers. Some brands have elected to be very hands-off. Others are very engaged. Third-party social monitoring tools (Context Optional, Involver, Buddy Media) and a community manager are a must in that case for doing escalation, bad word filtering, auto delete and more. This can be a recurring budget consideration.

Your Facebook page should be a destination with many doors, not just a flat campaign. Engaged users spend more time with your brand, and become your biggest advocates — often jumping in to defend the brand on the wall before the brand can respond. So give them a reason to stay and interact with something more than a lead generation form. Consider, “Why would someone share this with their friends?” when designing your social presence.

Don’t oversaturate your fans with content. You’ve spent time and money on earning them, so make your posts to their streams or tweets compelling and not too frequent in order to avoid them “un-liking” or blocking you.

Social isn’t a one-off. You’ve acquired lots of fans so keep using them. Think of longer strategies, not just short campaigns. You built an app that has 3 million users — don’t just end, extend. Those people are linked to you now, so keep giving them something. Add more content and create new ways to interact. This probably involves a new way of looking at budget.


 

Notes

  1. ˆ Ben Elowitz, “The Web is Shrinking. Now What?” Digital Quarters, June 2011.